Reading a trilogy

I have a marked reluctance to read the second book of a trilogy if I haven’t read the first. It’s usually tough going, and sometimes just about impossible to make sense of what is going on.

Back in 2004, books 2 and 3 of my Isles of Glory trilogy were up for consideration for Australia’s Best Fantasy of the Year Aurealis Award. I know at least one of the judges for 2004 did not read book 1 (which had been shortlisted in 2003); perhaps none of them did. I wondered at the time if that was quite fair. It is hard to judge a story when you start a third of the way in…
Be that as it may, Book 3 was shortlisted for 2004. It did not win though.

I have just read a review of The Shadow of Tyr, book 2 of The Mirage Makers, written by a reviewer who has not read book 1, over at The Bookbag. [Spoiler Warning: don’t read the review unless you have read “Heart of the Mirage”!!]

Needless to say, she found it hard going to start with, but I was heartened to see that not only did she finish it, but by the end she could give it 4 out of 5 stars and write:

“I began to see just why Larke elicits the comments she does. Once I’d got embedded into the mindset and began to find my way in this world – which is closer to ancient Rome than the usual “mediaeval” setting chosen for fantasy stories – I did begin to care about the characters. In particular Arrant – the son who appears to be as flawed as Ligea feared he might be – and his interaction with the other that takes over his mind. By the end Larke had my emotional attention. Had I started at the beginning, as one should, I’d have enjoyed the whole much more [….] She can spin a battle-scene with the power of a mirage whirlwind, and capture the stunned silence in the aftermath of a massacre.

That was a nice Christmas present.


Reading a trilogy — 4 Comments

  1. I suppose it can be an interesting academic exercise to read one volume in isolation from the others – or a chunk of chapters from the middle of a single book. But one can’t really judge a novel like a cake, i.e. one slice telling you everything you need to know, except perhaps for a sense of the overall visual presentation before it is cut. It’s more like trying to judge a jigsaw puzzle picture with barely a third of the pieces available. For the first volume or part of a story, the author is likely to give you the pieces that will give you an idea of the framework and hints of where it’s going; but if you get the second bunch of pieces without having the first then, depending on what the author is doing, you may get no such guarantees.

    I suppose there is the line of thought that the three volumes of a trilogy (which is not necessarily a long novel in three parts) should be like three pillars of relatively equal load-bearing strength. Certainly when we come to write the things we usually bear in mind that the reader might be coming in at book two (or read the first part a long time ago) and try to include enough background detail to pick up the storyline. But background detail is hardly the same thing as narrative or thematic structure – the architectural construction, so to speak, of how the three books combine into a three-dimensional whole.

    For competitions, having one or two judges who didn’t read the first book might be a valid procedure if the majority of the judges have read it, and if the same procedure is used for all the other novels by other authors being considered.

    I admit that when I see a reviewer announcing that he/she ‘didn’t read the previous book, but…’ I get a bit irritated. I appreciate that professional reviewers do have a lot of books thrown their way and deadlines to meet, but it will (almost inevitably) put a limited value on what they have to say because they’re taking it out of context. Or maybe that’s just me being bias, I don’t know. 😛

  2. I absolutely agree and love your analogies.

    I have a bias towards Gilfeather (Bk2 of the Isles of Glory), yet it wasn’t shortlisted, losing out to Bk3. And I wonder if the impact of the ending of Gilfeather was not lost on the judge(s) simply because they had not had the build up to that point from the beginning of Bk1. Much of Ruarth and the history of the Dustel Islanders comes in book1, not in Gilfeather. The reminders were there, but it is not the same.

  3. oh I think the visual impact (and horror) of the ending of Gilfeather is pretty powerful in its own right … though it’s difficult for me to judge because I did read book one beforehand!

    This is a difficult comment to make without it sounding as though I’m insulting the average reader’s intelligence (which I am not) but I’m going to try to make it anyway:

    I would imagine that Gilfeather is more than usually difficult to pick up as a second book without reading the first, because Kelwyn himself is a subtle and complex character and perhaps not so readily identifiable with as Blaze and Flame (and Tor Ryder) who are the more obviously ‘action’ characters carrying the main storyline of the trilogy as a whole. I confess that I became much fonder of him during book three than I had been for most of book two – it took a while to get to know him, so to speak. I don’t know the criteria for Aurealis nominations, but if they were trying to take Gilfeather in isolation, without all the important counterbalance and resonance from The Aware (let alone TheTainted which wasn’t around yet) then they would have hamstrung themselves when attempting to judge the storytelling craftsmanship; and if they were looking for strong central characters that would appeal to the widest part of the readership spectrum, they might have felt that Blaze and Flame were not prominent enough (too much like ‘supporting cast’) in this one book, and Kelwyn perhaps a bit too difficult for the average reader to immediately latch on to.

    I’m not saying that that is the case, but it is one of the drawbacks of taking a chunk of a work in isolation and expecting it to be like the slice of cake I mentioned before.

  4. One should never even try to guess about what motivates the decisions of judges of awards, I think. The Aurealis judges change pretty much every year, and a different set of people will have different loves and hates.

    Good writing, one hopes, is always a main element, but after that every one has different preferences, and these will come into play. Some have no love of urban fantasy, perhaps, others may scorn a medieval setting, saying it is too common. In the end, the winners are the ones who have written books that happen to appeal to that particular set of judges. Had the book been published the year after or the year before, the result may well be different.

    Which is why – although I adore being shortlisted and yes, I do think of it as both an endorsement and a validation – I would not be shattered if I wasn’t.

    What I truly love about the Aurealis Awards (as compared to so many other sff awards) is that every eligible book is at least considered. Everyone has a chance.

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